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The 55-Hour, Two-Province Road Trip – for Aug. 9, 2010

I like to think that we are somewhat organized around our place, however no matter the planning June and July are extremely hectic and multitasking becomes more like hypertasking. Things can get crammed and condensed into short periods, such as bull deliveries. This past weekend I made the last of my bull deliveries. Taking the bull by the horn, so to speak, I managed to pull off a 3,500-km round trip in 55 hours. I don’t drive a fancy rig. In fact it’s a 1994 Ford L9000 with a radio that doesn’t work. Needless to say I had lots of time to think as I made my two-province crop check through Alberta and Saskatchewan.

The spring/summer of 2010 marks the third year for drought in our neck of the woods. So once I got south of Whitecourt, it was a welcome sight to see what moisture can do for creating all the shades of dark green. The hay crops that people were managing to get baled were unreal. I saw more bales in the ditches than in some of the quarter sections up our way. Pastures too were a far cry from what they looked like last year. Many looked good but what was interesting, there were still lots that had dismal production considering all the rain that they had received. It just proves the point that it takes more than just rain to make healthy, productive pastures.

It was also mind boggling to see all the unseeded acres. At one point through east-central Saskatchewan I saw only three seeded quarters in a 20-mile stretch of highway frontage. The rest were chemfallowed fields with sloughs that had doubled in size, judging by the cattails that surrounded them.

Seeing these fields and all the lost inputs (fertilizer, spray, seed and diesel) made me think that as much as we think the cow industry can be tough, at least too much moisture doesn’t usually screw up the year’s business plan.

Agriculture was founded on the premise of converting solar energy and moisture into edible food products. Now it has become a process of converting petroleum and natural gas-based inputs into food products. Profitability is dependent upon getting just the right amount of moisture. Add in too much and or not enough and it throws the whole production and financial picture into left field. Seeing the droughted fields of the Peace and the drowned fields of central Saskatchewan brought home to me the risks associated with high production/high input agriculture, or — as I like to call it — the business of supporting agribusiness.

For the most part it can still be said that the cow business is one that continues to be based on converting solar energy into grass which is then turned into protein by our four-legged, solar-powered forage biodigesters. Yes, there are still times when diesel is burned to cut hay and make winter feed but when it is done right even this expense can be kept to a minimum.

Many of us often get caught up stressing about the factors we cannot control rather than focusing on the ones we can. The weather and markets are prime examples. It would be great if I could control the weather and/or the markets but that is not reality. However, there are things that I can control and that is what I produce and how I choose to produce it. What I love most about the cow business is that I can, for the most part, cut out this business of supporting agribusiness.

Our pastures are perennial and have alfalfa that supports our nitrogen factory without TUA agreements from any company. Through proper grazing and occasionally using a cutter bar, weeds like thistle can be kept at bay without herbicide. By feeding cows in the fields we eliminate the need to haul manure and improve pasture fertility. By keeping the bulls out of the mix until mid-July we can eliminate the need for fancy calving facilities, and have cows that can look after themselves, rather than us being servants to them. Finally by putting pressure on the cows and using the right genetics we can produce cattle that thrive under a low input solar system.

My trip was rushed but it gave me time to think. Long-term sustainability cannot come from more trips to town but rather by becoming more self reliant on the resources that your ranch produces rather than the ones that come with fancy advertisement. Yes, droughts can be tough but they are a reality with farming. By managing for the worst-case scenario, the worst thing you can end up with is too much grass.

Dr.ChristophWeder

Dr.ChristophE.WederisapurebredAngusbreederinthe PeaceregionofAlbertaandalsorunsSVRRanchConsulting. HeisalsoafoundingmemberofPrairieHeritage BeefProducersForadditionalinfocheckout www.spiritviewranch.com.

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There are things that I can control and that is what I produce and how I choose to produce it

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